It is no secret that my family lives on board games.
Though we'd settle down into a Mario Kart tournament back in the Super Nintendo days of yore, we aren't really into the craze of video games, at least not as a family. When we sit down to play, it's with physical pieces and verbal interplay. We chide and vamp, sing and spell, and all around have a pleasant time.
This love of games is infectious. Whether we mean to or not, it is often the "rite of passage" for new friends and family to come and play; like a litmus test to see if you can have fun with new people without being a tool. We use it to pass the time between meals, as a jumpstart between conversations (and, in recent years, a transition AWAY from uncomfortable topics - like hitting a reset button), and sometimes, even, as an intellectual "dessert" after a satisfying meal. Every household in the branches of my side of the family has made board gaming a consistent go-to in their world, and we have yet to see any hint of slowing down.
I am a professional Game Master for crying out loud; my brothers and I DESIGN board games (not as a living, but both my brother and I have entered the play-testing stage) and my eldest brother REVIEWS them on a podcast called the Dicetower (good stuff, check them out HERE). Then, we each have families. My eldest brother has taught his two boys dozens of games and my sister and other brother have kept the passion alive. PLAY is in our blood, and we happily share it with whomever is willing to join the table.
But there are other benefits, too.
Coming from a teaching background, I would be remiss not to mention the many facets of our human experience that consistent play augments and cultivates. Reading, writing, math, transfer, learning styles - it's all there, and you're practicing from play, which is awesome. If you read this blog or listen to my podcast regularly, you may already be aware of the immense impact a game like Dungeons and Dragons can have on a person, socially and physically, and a game like that doesn't have a concrete "end."
A board game does. Most "box games" have a winner, too, so there's scoring involved. Even when the game is cooperative, there's still a measure of competition; me vs them, us vs the board, us vs one, you get the idea. And yet, with a strong etiquette at the table...no one has to feel bad about any of those setups. Sure, there are game types I don't enjoy, and we're all allowed that boundary, but even IF I had to play a game I didn't like, I could AT LEAST be certain that I wouldn't be treated unfairly. And that is because - at least among my family - we teach our people gaming etiquette. Our own personal expectations at the table, cultivated over many years of playing together.
I've been thinking deeply on what I've seen, and I thought I'd write them down and share them with you.
Commandments For Tabletop Etiquette
FOLLOW THE RULES
Some of you might say, "well, duh" here, but you'd be surprised how many people - young, old, new, veteran - try to cheat during play. Now, sometimes you forget the rules, and that's FINE. But after we've taught you the rule four times, and are now watching you like a hawk about it, maybe commit the extra brain power to remember it the fifth time. And, presentation of intention helps a bunch here. I've been in plenty of games where someone has struggled with the volume of rules, or keeping their move options in their heads, or getting stuck on one particular detail. It's one thing to consistently forget but work through it and another to attempt to hide it. One is forgetful - the other is cheating. And asking QUESTIONS go a long way here. It's always okay to clarify your understanding; it saves those headaches later. AND, if you voice that you're struggling with something, WE WILL HELP YOU. We're not shaming your struggle; we just want everyone at the table to value the rules so we're all on an even playing field.
Anecdotal Rant Incoming: I was playing a game with the family of a friend - Ticket to Ride, one of my favorites - when a sudden schism occurred. In the game, on your turn, you can only take one Action. You have three options on what Action to take: draw two cards OR claim a single route OR pick more routes. This restriction is one of the binding mechanics of the game; it is the same across every iteration. Upon sitting down to play this game with this family, who have expressed that it is their favorite game too, we did not feel the need to review how to play the game.
So we're playing for about a half hour or so; I've been picking my one action each turn, carefully planning and watching round to round, waiting for my time to claim a route and - the person next to me proceeds to draw two cards, then immediately start claiming routes one after another. Confused, I - perhaps too forcefully - exclaimed "What are you doing?" and everyone else looked at me like I was crazy.
"This is the way you play the game." They said.
"...You can only take one action each turn. You've already drawn, your turn is over. That was your one action." I returned, laughing a bit. I expected to be backed up - we've all played this before, right?
They looked around, confused. "This is the way we learned to play." They said.
"Well I learned to play following the rules; the fact that you can do only one thing at a time is a huge part of the game. You have to decide what's most important every turn."
"That's not what the rules say!"
Then, turning to the exact spot in the rule book, I read them the literal rules.
"Well, this is how WE play the game!"
"...Then I would have loved to know that at the beginning of play. If I had known you were playing this way, I would have played my turns VERY DIFFERENTLY."
We finished the game "my way", with the actual rules, and it was a tense experience. I didn't mean to make everyone super uncomfortable and I'm not against making House Rules in any respect (I do it too!), but you need to let people know that you've made the change before you begin. If you don't do this, you've essentially handed one player at the table a DIFFERENT set of rules than the rest of you - I was effectively playing at a huge disadvantage because I didn't know the "family secret." And after calling them out on 1) not following the rules I thought they knew, and 2) not warning me that they play the game differently in their house...my name has been cursed to high heaven to this day over the Great Ticket To Ride Incident of '09.
I have sobered a bit, but I think my response was so visceral because I grew up in a household where you followed the rules to the game. We understood that the designers made it that way for a reason, and, at the very least, we should try it a few times their way before we ponder alternatives. AND, IF we made any changes after that point, we would always remind the table of the change before we started playing. We understood the difference; we could tell you what was House Rule and what was RAW every game at every table. It ensures that none of us are operating with a stacked deck.
COMMIT TO THE GAME
If you've come to the table to play, commit some brain power to that play. I was teaching a game recently to someone and we were getting into a good swing of fun. Then I noticed that their choices didn't seem to follow much of a strategy given the game's setup; they seemed random. I asked curiously, "What's your strategy right now, friend? Looks interesting!"
They perked up wide-eyed. "Oh! I know it doesn't make sense. I just don't care."
1) Ouch. 2) The baseline here was just that they wanted to play with me, but had no further desire or impetus to formulate their own strategy to achieve something here. Like every turn was pure luck.
Now, some game ARE pure luck, but even games with a high luck element have choice points and strategy.
Consider this another facet of the Social Contract: I'm at this table - I'm going to bring my A Game, because I expect everyone else to do the same. I've committed brain power and time and energy to this, I expect you to do the same. That's how the fun gets done.
HELP WITH HONESTY
There are no players I despise more than the ones who will only help you if it helps them. Instead, offer guidance and advice even if...no, especially if it can hurt your position. We were all beginners at one time and we know how that felt. A beginner in anything is not one to be shamed; in fact, they should be elevated. The best veteran players at the table are the ones that offer guidance with honesty; who build clear trust and rapport at the table. Don't EVER maneuver a new player into a position that helps you just because "they don't know any better." That's cruel, and it makes the other person feel used.
So, if you're going to help and the other person welcomes it, help them make the best move they can, even if it hurts you.
And NEVER play FOR them; explain a strategy, answer their questions honestly, and let THEM make the decision. Because it isn't your turn, it's theirs.
RESPECT THE MATERIALS
When I was teaching board games more consistently, I was quickly APPALLED by the utter abuse my cards, pieces, and materials underwent at the hands of kids who should know better. I got into the habit of having a class or two without games at the start of a unit just to go over how to, ya' know, NOT put my dice in your mouth; NOT stuff garbage into the game box; NOT pull apart the miniature tokens (and break them); NOT rip up the cards you don't like... The list goes on and on about what I witnessed in short order, but instead of going over every instance, it all falls under the same umbrella commandment: Respect the materials. Do not break the game just because you want to fidget (not against fidgeting, mind you, but you can fidget without breaking stuff).
Some board games are $60+. A torn card, a broken miniature, and a smashed die can be massively expensive to replace AND you've broken that trust of play. If you break that trust, then you won't be allowed back at the table. At least not for a long while; until you can prove that you are trustworthy.
I'll repeat that for those in the back: If I let you play my game and use my stuff and it comes back broken...YOU DON'T GET TO PLAY WITH ME AGAIN. Why? Because you broke my trust. Borrow a pencil and it comes back snapped in half? No more pencils for you. Borrowed a pen and it comes back chewed on? No more pens for you. Borrowed a die and it was never returned? No more dice for you.
Respect the materials because you are borrowing them and building trust by doing so. Breaking that trust will always have consequences.
No one likes a bragger. We're glad you're doing well, but do not make others feel bad if they are struggling. Instead, be their cheerleader. Offer Honest Help, celebrate their victories, and build up the table. Even you still come out on top, no one else has to be stepped on to get there.
Kids are...kids. And people...are people.
A person's age, development, and social skill play a huge role in establishing where they are in their personal etiquette at the table. Though I see these "commandments" at play most actively with young kids and teenagers, there have been many instances where adults fail to follow them. Should those individuals be summarily condemned for tearing my cards? I'd argue no. However, case by case there need to be consequences...and reparations.
If they broke someone's trust, they need to work to get it back. If they spoiled a game by bragging and putting everyone down, then they need to practice building others up. If they cheated knowingly and threw a fit at the table over it, they need to cultivate honest play and begin to recognize the value in personal integrity.
All of these are essential skills to have in all aspects of life, and knowledge of them reveals a great universal truth.
If you play well, you live well.
See you at the table.
PS: These were the most recent lessons I've seen from my family, but I'm sure I could think of a few more. What are some at your tables?
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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